Jun 11, 2015 | By Simon

It appears that now more than ever, the developments centered around material science in the additive manufacturing space have been increasingly active.  Between the ability to print more materials than ever before - including NASA-approved space filaments and ‘smart’ 4D materials that are capable of being programmed to alter their shape - as well as the increased accessibility of 3D printing itself, it’s only a matter of time before we start to see consumers fabricating their own ‘smart’ products literally on their kitchen counters.  

However despite the many advancements in material science, there are still some materials that have proven to be difficult to work with when it comes to additive manufacturing.  Among others is one of the oldest materials known to man: metal.  

(Credit: University of Twente)

Because of their need for ultra-high temperatures in order to be melted down into a pliable form, among other factors, metal has proven to be a difficult material to work with when it comes to 3D printing - however the potential is enormous.  Among other applications, 3D printed metals would revolutionize the design of the consumer products by allowing designers and engineers to embed control systems directly into their designs rather than build housings around existing chips - due to the material’s natural properties.  

More recently, a team of researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands have found a way to 3D print structures of copper and gold through an additive process of stacking small metal droplets that are created by melting a thin metal film with a laser.  

Researchers used thousands of metal drops to print a pillat just 2 mm tall and 5 microns in diameter. (Credit: University of Twente)

More specifically, the team pulsed a laser that was focused onto the thin metal film until droplets formed and were able to be dropped into a substrate.  Over a series of drops that utilized this process, the researchers were able to create a physical object.  In one of their experiments, the researchers stacked thousands of drops to form micro-pillars with a height of 2 millimetres and a diameter of 5 micrometres.  Additionally, they were able to print vertical electrodes and lines of copper within an existing design.

In the earliest experiments in their research, the researchers used a much lower melting temperature with the laser which resulted in the metal droplets forming a spherical shape.  Due to the inability to stack spherical shapes, the researchers were able to maintain a ‘disc shape’ by increasing the temperature of the laser, which subsequently made each of the droplets easier to stack.  

High energy lasers are used to create fast-flowing metal droplets (Credit: University of Twente)

In the near future, the team is planning on further exploring how to fine-tune the accuracy of the droplet landing locations in order to better execute designs as-intended.  If the team is able to scale up the technology into the size of a desktop 3D printer that has a high rate of accuracy, they will certainly be at the forefront of an entirely new 3D printing revolution.  



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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